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  • Stefan Riedlinger

North and South - Bill Conti - Soundtrack Review

Bill Conti’s music to “North and South” is not lonely one of my favorite scores, it is furthermore one of the best soundtracks you can listen to. The TV adaption of John Jakes book trilogy about the Civil War made Patrick Swayze to star. Mostly people think of the two volumes of the series, the third one is crap, so we can forget about it. Also, Conti composed just the music to book one and book two, so I am concentrating on that.

Finally, you can buy the whole soundtrack and not just these six tracks which were released with the CD of “The Right Stuff”, the score Conti won finally an Academy Award for.

The series

"North and South" is the title of three American television miniseries broadcast on ABC in 1985, 1986 and 1994. The first two miniseries can be considered as classics, but the third and final installment is not worth talking about. The first one is still the seventh-highest rated miniseries in TV history and made Patrick Swayze a star. Here is a trailer:

Producer David Wolper, a long-time independent producer of high-quality documentaries for television, revolutionised TV in 1977 with his award-winning production of Alex Haley’s family saga "Roots" about American slavery. In 1983, he produced the classic "The Thorn Birds" with Richard Chamberlain as priest Ralph de Bricassart and Rachel Ward as Meggie, with a fabulous score by Henry Mancini.

"North and South" had two crucial elements for a successful miniseries: a very well-written best-selling novel by John Jakes and a historical subject that is still affecting American life. The plot is about the friendship between Orry Main from South Carolina, played by Swayze, and George Hazard from Pennsylvania, played by James Read, who become best friends while attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. The slave-owning Mains are rural planters, while the Hazards are part of the industrial revolution in the more progressive northern states of the US. The different lifestyles result in conflicts, mainly driven by George’s sister Virgilia, played by Kirstie Alley, and her opinion about freedom for the slaves. Orry falls in love with Madeline, played by the beautiful Lesley-Anne Down, but she marries the sadistic Justin LaMotte, played by David Carradine.

The main difference with John Jakes’s book is that Orry died in the first book, but in the TV series Orry he survived. Since Swayze was not interested in returning to his role for the third season, he had to be killed at the start. Philip Casnoff as Elkanah Bent, the nemesis of Orry and George, achieves this in the first minutes of the third series. It is clear that the producers used old material for the only scene when you see Orry; the person getting killed is being played by a faceless actor. That was the moment I switched off my TV and did not carry on watching the third series.

Set before and during the American Civil War, the series is a modern Gone with the Wind and takes back to those days. The series features a lot of popular and well-known actors such as David Carradine as Madeline’s sadistic husband, Hal Holbrook as Abraham Lincoln, Gene Kelly as Bent's father, Robert Mitchum as Colonel Patrick Flynn, Jean Simmons as Orry’s mother and Jonathan Frakes as George’s older brother, to mention just a few.

Even today, the series is worth watching, and in my opinion Swayze did not get enough credit for his role, even though he sometimes overacted. The action scenes are very good overall, but the second installment focused perhaps a little bit too much on the sadistic scenes of war. However "North and South" is still great entertainment. Bill Conti did a marvelous job, and his music is one reason that the series become a huge success. As the music of "North and South" is typical of Conti’s style of composing, I decided to introduce this composer with this music.

The music

After composing the music for the Rocky movies, winning an Academy Award for "The Right Stuff" (1983) and even composing the music for one James Bond movie, Conti was in high demand. Even though he had never scored a mini-series before, Conti already had experience with composing music for television and created the title themes for various successful TV series. In the liner notes to the CD release of "North and South", Conti explained that producer David Wolper said: “I want "Gone With the Wind”. After playing the theme on the piano, Wolper and director Richard T. Heffron were very pleased. Here you can listen, why:

In the liner notes, you also get an idea of Conti’s great sense of humour when he asked: “When do we go on air?” and got the reply: “In three weeks”. He felt that this shortened his life by six months. Conti explained in the liner notes the murderous schedule he was facing, but when listening to the music, you will understand it was worth all the effort. Conti explained that "North and South" is for him “melodic, operatic, Italian”, and this approach was 100% right. Here is an interview:

“The real miracle is that it happened at all – and that it didn’t kill me. I had to write like an animal.” For the first week, he composed from early morning until late at night, during the last two weeks, he woke up at six in the morning and wrote until six at night, then went over to the scoring stage and recorded every night from seven to twelve, and this had to start all over again the next day. Conti explained that because of the murderous schedule he was writing in a stream of consciousness, and for Conti as an Italian, that is melodic, operatic, Italian. “I can do that in my sleep, that’s me,” he pointed out.

The soundtrack for the series comes in two CD sets called books, each one with three CDs, and the first book also has a fourth CD with source music from this era. The music has a lot of highlights and starts, of course, with the powerful and majestic main theme. There is also a shorter, faster version played for the end credits, and different versions of these main themes can be found throughout the second book.

The tracks for the second book are generally shorter, so it is difficult to highlight a few tracks. It might also be a little boring to listen to the whole music all at once. The music is a little repetitive, but if you consider that the music was over four hours long, that is not surprising. People who know the series can go directly to their favourite scenes and play the music to these scenes. By listening to the whole soundtrack, you can discover some unexpected highlights such as "Billy’s Duel". People who are familiar with Conti’s music will also discover that some parts are very similar to his score to The "Formula" (1981), especially the music for Billy and his love interest Augusta.

In his musical approach, Conti used Richard Wagner’s leitmotiv approach, so he used typical themes for each character. Except for the main theme, there are individual themes for the peaceful life in the southern states at that time, an Irish theme for George’s wife Constance (Disc 1, track 38), or a heavily percussion-based version of the main theme for the Hazards from the industrial northern states in track 16 "Hazard Iron".

Because "North and South" is a love story, there are plenty of romantic moments in this fabulous score. One great piece is the love scene between Orry and Madeleine in Madeline and Orry (CD 2, track 4), a true masterpiece in the tradition of the melodramatic Italian opera style of Giacomo Puccini. This track alone is worth buying the CD set for. Many of these very emotional and melodramatic pieces can be found in the soundtrack, for example "The Wedding Night", with a very sad variation on the main theme, or Church Meeting, a similar track when Orry sees Madeline at the end of episode 2 as they try to accept their situation as it is right now. How Conti guides the emotions during this scene is indeed a sign of how gifted this composer is.

There are plenty of marvelous action tracks to discover. One is "En Garde, Bent" (CD 1, track 11) when Bent wants to give a sabre lesson to Orry, but Orry is stronger than he expected. Another great track is the already mentioned "Billy’s Duel" (CD 3, track 18) about a perilous trap set for Billy and, of course, the full number of action tracks in the second CD set. One track worth mentioning is George’s rescue with Orry and Charles in "Orry Frees George" (CD 3, track 04) or a short one called "Charles Chase" (CD 1, track 7), great, fast-forward action music. One highlight is, of course, "Orry to the Rescue" (CD 1, track 24) when Orry finally kills Justin and gets Madeline. This whole track is composed in a scherzo style, a style in which John Williams likes to compose, but overall still pure Conti.

It is practically impossible to mention all the highlights. You have to discover them for yourself, and this is great fun. As someone who watched North and South as a teenager and always wanted to have Bill Conti’s whole soundtrack in my hands, a dream came true when these two CD sets were finally released. I still prefer the music to the first book, too much war music for me in the second book, but I do not want to miss tracks such as The Wedding, when Orry gets finally married to Madeline, or "Augusta Inside", for the love scenes between Charles and the lovely Augusta. Take your time to discover this music and bring your first listening session to an end with "Friends Farewell" and the shorter version of the main theme at the end. Here is the end title:

Bill Conti said in the liner notes: “North and South was a great experience. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of”. I agree. "North and South" is a perfect example of what amazing movie music can do. Well done, maestro!

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2014, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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